China’s Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu seized 20,000 chests of opium from foreign traders. On June 3, 1839, the twenty-three day process of the destruction of the opium at Humen commenced. It was reduced to poisonous slurry and drained into the South China Sea.
The British enjoyed their cup of tea. They imported millions of pounds a year. A trade imbalance developed because Britain adopted a gold standard in the 18th century and China only accepted silver as payment. Britain would have to import more silver in order to meet China’s demand.
Or they could become drug lords. Operating through the British East India Company, Britain retooled India’s cotton crops to produce opium. Traders picked up the opium at auction in Calcutta. The Company shipped it out, where Chinese traders picked it up in boats. Lin Zexu estimated that China developed 4 million addicts.
He put a ban on the opium trade. Charles Elliot, the British Superintendent of Trade in China, complied and turned in the contraband. The British government expected to be compensated. Lin Zexu had opium seized from factories and removed from British vessels that were outside of Chinese zones. This opium was still considered legal cargo.
The 1300 long tons of opium (an estimated £2,000,000 value) was boiled with lime and salt. It was poured into three pits lined with wood and barricaded with a bamboo fence. Over twenty-three days, it was tramped down and flushed into the South China Sea. A prayer was offered against the toxic offense.
Foreign merchants who had participated in the opium trade were banned from China. Charles Elliot had promised compensation to the merchants, but Parliament had never agreed to these terms.
This was just the beginning of the Opium Wars.